Day 198, 25th February – Whalesharks in South Ari Atoll

One of the highlights of working down south in Velavaru was that we were in close proximity to a place in South Ari Atoll that was frequented by whale sharks. It’s been an absolute dream of mine to swim alongside a wild whale shark so I’d begged the dive centre to let me tag along on my day off. Several days ago, I joined a trip and spent several hours looking for them to no avail. When I heard they were having another whale shark trip to South Ari Atoll, I tried not to get my hopes up again, but eagerly climbed aboard the speedboat with my fingers crossed.

Today, we wait with the sun beating down our shoulders, squinting for a shadow over the rippling waters, trying not to be thrown off-balance from the lurching boat. With the sun glaring down at the sea, the blue becomes reflective and even more difficult to look through. Wave after wave, all I see is an infinite blue, incapable of even gauging how deep we are anymore. All of a sudden, someone shouts, “Vaaiy faraaiy! To the left of the boat!” I catch a glimpse of a dark shadow slowly cruising across the reef and then it disappears. The next few minutes pass by in madness. Everyone scrambling to put on their snorkel gear, the captain trying to keep an eye on the shark and lots of shouting to get into the water as fast as possible. I help the kids into the water first and soon enough I’m the last one on the boat. “Where is my stuff! And….I can’t find my fins.”

Everyone is off the boat, in the water, and I can’t find my fins. Ageel is drifting away and I see him waving his arms, calling me to get in the water…but my fins are not on the deck, not under the seats, and then a moment of dread washes over me. Can I keep up with an 8-m long shark without any fins? No…HAS ANYONE SEEN MY FINS? The boat crew scramble around helping me to find them and finally we find them stowed in the lower deck. I don’t bother to ask why and without hesitation, I jump off the bow and straight into the water, putting on my fins as I swim towards the large shadow. My jet fins are heavy, and definitely not ideal for swimming fast at the surface, but I press on.

I spot it around 6m from the surface, polka-dotted and huge, the foot-long remoras clinging on to its side look as small as cleaner wrasses. It swims unhurriedly, its large tail sweeping slowly in the dim light. Should it have been swimming any faster, I’d probably not be able to close the distance between us. Just as I manage to keep directly overhead the shark, I take a deep breath and pull myself deeper, my heart still racing from trying to keep up with this giant, my lungs gasping to take another breath, but all this discomfort escapes. It’s massive! It’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking. Following it deeper, I watch as it swims placidly, barely brushing its body on the seabed. The reef is just a bluish blur of boulder corals scattered around, the shark crosses over it with ease, completely dwarfing everything.

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I need air.

I rush back up to the surface, heaving and panting, still relentlessly swimming above the shark, trying to catch my breath to descend once more. I feel so small, my fins feebly trying to keep up with this giant, who is very annoyingly swimming effortlessly against a current towards the drop-off. This is where the reef gradually trails off into a deep slope, and the water temperature ominously drops into a spine-chilling cold. All I feel is pure adrenaline, and before I’ve taken a large enough breath, I find myself chasing the shark into the deep blue until soon enough, it completely disappears, engulfed by the far-reaching depths of the sea. And I, limited by my lungs, am forced to retire to the surface once again. I wish I had gills.

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After I haul myself back onto the speedboat, I am an absolute mess and continually stutter about what might have been one of the greatest experiences in my entire life. I feel like I’ve known whale sharks, read about them and how large they can grow to, watched documentaries chronicling their fate today and spoken to people about how gentle these giants are. Well, let’s just say that all that did absolutely nothing to prepare me for this encounter face to face.

Before I had the time to process what was going on, the boat had set off again in search for more whale sharks. One of the boat crew received word from other operators that another shark had been sighted on the radio, and we followed their directions for our next sighting. This time, we weren’t the only boat around and another four more boats with loads more tourists were starting to enter the water.

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The second time around, I was way more prepared. Fins, mask, snorkel, camera all within an arms reach and ready to go. Once the boat stopped, I dived in without hesitation and followed Ageel, mentally prepared to keep up with the shark once again. This time, he helped me snap a few photos of the incredible encounter. “This one is still considered small”, he explained to me as I tried to catch my breath again, as I stared slightly dumbfounded at him that he was referring to an animal more than thrice my height. This is without a doubt the largest animal I’ve been in the water with in my life. Whale sharks are the largest recorded species of fish, the longest individual being 12.65 metres in length. They’re still smaller than whales for sure, but at least double the size of a great white shark.

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The second whale shark of the day, a ‘mere’ 6m long (Thanks Ageel for these photos!)

For such large animals, our understanding of them is still very limited. Believe it or not, but nobody knows how and where whale sharks mate or give birth. The bulk of what we know about whale shark reproduction is from a single female caught in Taiwan, which was found carrying with 300 embryos.

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Egg cases and embryos found from a single 10.6 metre long female caught in Taiwan in 1996 (Photo from WL Chen)

Whale sharks are endangered and internationally protected species, listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), meaning that exports of these animals must be done with a valid license. In the Indo-Pacific region, whale shark populations have collapsed by 63% within the last 75 years. Globally, the decline is estimated to be more than 50%. In recent years, however, the value of these sharks has increased in the tourism industry relative to the fisheries industries. A single whale shark fin can be valued at as much as USD$57’000 in restaurants, but recorded prices paid to fishermen can be as low as USD$3000-4000 for a whole shark. In terms of tourism, whale shark watching is far more lucrative here in the Maldives. The value of whale shark tourism in South Ari Atoll alone was estimated to be about USD$7.6 million in 2012 and USD$9.4 million in 2013, with between 72-78’000 tourists on the look for these sharks annually. Whale shark fishing was banned in 1995 across the whole of the Maldives, and by 1998, all shark fishing in tourism zones were prohibited. Clearly, the value of sharks is much higher in terms of tourism than it is as a fishery species.

With so many tourists traveling to the Maldives to see whale sharks, it’s easy to see how this can all get out of control. Whale shark tourism has been particularly controversial, especially in cases where sharks are lured intentionally. In some places around the world such as Oslob, the Philippines, tour guides deliberately empty loads of baitfish into the water to attract these sharks. In other cases, these sharks are captured for display in live aquaria, such as in Okinawa, Japan, and Georgia, USA.

So, the question is this…how can we ensure that tourism is sustainable and minimizes impacts on wild whale sharks? Here’s a great video on ethical guidelines to whale shark watching by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP), I found out about after the day’s events. It’s a charity that carries out whale shark research and fosters community focused conservation initiatives in the Maldives.

I learned that they’ve also put together an amazing app ‘Whale Shark Network Maldives’ that helps you to contribute citizen science data from recording sightings of whale sharks and identify different individuals. Basically, it provides a live feed of whale shark sightings around the Maldives, and using the dots on each individual helps identify each whale…it’s basically like a human fingerprint! The app now even lists the name of these sharks with some pretty creative names such as “Mohammed Ali”, “Nemo”, “Sparkle” and “Hook”. Pretty neat huh? I thought it was a great way for operators to cooperate and not only share information about the whereabouts of these animals but to also contribute to a better understanding of the population at large.

It’s heartening to see tourist and boat operators here looking towards sustainable tourism for whale sharks so that many more people like myself can truly enjoy and experience these majestic and beautiful creatures first hand. What an amazing day, and I’m so glad to finally be able to cross that off my bucket list!

Day 197, 24th February 2018 – Coral Planting

It’s hard to say why, but the reefs at Velavaru are doing exceptionally well despite the bleaching even that’s occurred. Corals seem to grow rapidly along the reef slope as well as within the lagoon! As Shameem and I took a snorkel out in the lagoon to clean some of the coral frames, we caught a glimpse of a large patch of Acropora that oddly enough seemed to be growing from a sandy bottom. Usually, corals need a hard substrate for them to anchor themselves onto, and sandy bottoms mean a higher likelihood of eventually getting smothered and buried under piles and piles of sand. But there they were. I’m still puzzled, but perhaps the lagoon was deep enough and sheltered enough to not be affected by waves and severe fluctuations in sea temperatures? I’m not sure…

Because of the sheer success of coral propagation programs here in Velavaru, the island has multiple frames and nurseries for baby coral fragments to grow up gradually. It’s heartening to see rope nurseries with fragments that have grown so large that it makes the entire nursery sag with its weight. Shameem and I cleaned the Goshi frames a couple of days ago and today it’s time for us to transfer the large corals from the rope nursery over to the frames where they have even more space to grow larger. We’re lucky because we get a bit of help from Sylvia, my lovely roommate and an amazing dive instructor, today to help us slowly remove and transfer the corals.

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Sylvia hard at work trying to clip off some of the fragments from our nursery for transplantation onto the frames

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Shameem inspecting an Acropora coral fragment for transplantation

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Our haul from just three lines of the rope nursery! There were more corals on the nursery but we really couldn’t fit anymore into the basket…the remaining fragments will just have to be transplanted next time then!

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We used a lift bag to carry the fragments up towards the surface and then swam over to our new coral frames

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Sylvia making sure nothing falls out from the basket

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Our Goshi frame in horrible visibility! Goshi is apparently the Maldivian name of a basket cover used to prevent flies from accessing food. The frame reminded them of those baskets, hence the name

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Pre-transplantation…The frames look pretty bare. We attached corals with cable ties, spacing them out at regular intervals. Silly me, I didn’t take a picture at the end after we’d finish all the attachment.

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An incredibly adorable baby yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus) I found on our frames while transferring the corals

That was a particularly long dive…around 90 minutes? And although we were only at a maximum depth of 10 metres, I found myself shivering slightly towards the end. It was totally worth it though and even though we were all pretty exhausted and hungry after that, I can’t wait for these corals to overgrow their new home!

Day 189, 16th February 2018 – Maldives from the skies

Today, I start another exciting journey to the southern part of the Maldives, Dhaalu atoll, where I will be spending two weeks at the island of Velavaru. The marine lab at Velavaru has lots of work on its hands, I’ve heard that the rope nursery for the corals is doing super well and there’s lots of live coral around the reefs…so that makes for a lot of coral planting! To get to Dhaalu atoll, you have to take a seaplane flight from the airport at Hulhumale. Seaplanes are strange. They remind me of something out of an action movie…or a war film or something.

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Waiting for my flight at the seaplane terminal and watching the rest of the planes take off!

I snag a seat right at the window next to the propellers and watch as I see Hulhumale and Male shrink from a distance. It’s strange to think that when people think of the Maldives, they think of white sandy beaches, coconut palms and resorts, but this is also Maldives. Male is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with an area shy of six square kilometres and a population exceeding 133’000 people. That’s actually just slightly larger than Sentosa which is around five square kilometres!

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View of Male from the sea plane

The Maldives was a name thought to be derived from a few languages, namely Sanskrit mālādvīpa (मालाद्वीप), Malayalam Maladweepu (മാലദ്വീപ്), Tamil Malai Theevu (மாலைத்தீவு) and Kannada Maaledweepa (ಮಾಲೆದ್ವೀಪ), but they all mean something similar “garland of islands”. Also a side note…it’s pronounced Mall + Deeves, not Mall + Dives, though the latter seems to make sense since lots of diving happens in the Maldives. After taking my first sea plane flight in the Maldives, it’s easy to see how the country got its name.

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It’s amazing to see the Maldives from the air, every single ring after ring of microatolls and reefs. The Maldives is a nation of around 1190 islands, of which around a tenth is inhabited. This is the lowest lying country in the world— Maldivian islands have an average height barely 1.5m above sea level, and with sea levels rising as a result of climate change, it is expected that an 80cm rise by 2100 will flood a significant portion of the country.

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These natural formations have Funnily enough, the first time I encountered the word ‘atoll’ was in what is now one of my favourite poems, “Bearded Oaks”, by an American poet, Robert Penn Warren.

The oaks, how subtle and marine,

Barded, and all the layered light

Above them swims; and thus the scene,

Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie

Beneath the languorous tread of light:

The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy

The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,

Unmurmuring, of polyp made,

We rest; we are, as light withdraws,

Twin atolls on a shelf of shade…

 

The English word for ‘atoll’ was apparently taken from Dhivehi word “atholhu” by early geographers and reef scientists. Atolls are perhaps one of the most spectacular natural formations—rings of reefs scattered in the sea like garlands, their lagoons the most brilliant shades of turquoise or aquamarine. The origin and formation of these atolls have puzzled scientists for years and the most popular theory of atoll formation today was conceived by Charles Darwin, illustrated in his book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ in 1839. Darwin’s Subsidence Theory proposes that atolls start off as fringing reefs that surround volcanic islands, and that these volcanic islands eventually subside partially or completely, leaving a ring of reefs behind. Pretty cool animation of what this looks like here:

Then, there’s another theory by Reginald Aldworth Daly, the Glacial Control Theory. This Canadian geologist believed that atolls were formed as a result of a fall in sea levels during the Pleistocene glacial period when ice caps were formed. Atolls formed around along eroded island peaks after wave cut platforms were submerged. Atolls remain one of the most remarkable formations in the Maldives, and these reefs and islands are so central to local culture that there are multiple names for these different formations.

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The different local names for reef and island structures

The atolls and islands of the Maldives are beautiful, but because land is scarce, more and more islands and atolls are filled up or reclaimed for the construction of resorts and residential areas. Efforts to control coral mining for building materials have been put in place for instance, and mining is not allowed on island house reefs, in common bait fishing reefs, and applications declaring the quantity of corals that will be mined must be approved beforehand. In some sense, I think this is a problem that small island states like Maldives and Singapore share in common…how can you mitigate the impact of coastal development, and what are the costs implicated? In areas that have already been developed, how can you help ecosystems to recover?

IMG_6397The 1.39 km long China-Maldives Friendship Bridge under construction, which will connect the capital city Malé and Hulhumalé, the neighbouring island that houses the main airport.

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Man-made channels in the reef (Dhivehi: Neru)

Another way to limit the amount of damage to reefs is to create designated channels in the reefs surrounding the islands. This is quite common in many resorts including Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and Angsana, so boats/snorkellers don’t end up getting stranded on parts of the reef that are too shallow or that they don’t end up damaging the entire reef.

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I’ve been flying on the cheapest budget night flights from Singapore and Maldives that always and vice versa, so I haven’t really had a chance to see the Maldives from the air but man, I think Maldives might be one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen from a plane.

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AAAAND TOUCHDOWN! HELLO VELAVARU!